TODAY Wales must produce their best performance on the road since stunning England at Twickenham at the 2015 World Cup if they are to stand a chance of getting a boost for Japan 2019.
In the 11 games since inflicting what turned out to be a fatal blow to the hosts in London, Wales have won just once away from Cardiff.
That was in Italy on the opening Sunday of this year’s Six Nations and they have avoided defeat just once, a draw in Dublin in 2016.
They have lost to Australia and South Africa at Twickenham, England (twice), New Zealand (three times), the Chiefs and Scotland.
The record just goes to show how hard it is to win away from home in Test rugby these days – the English triumph in Cardiff is the only non-Roman conquest in this year’s Championship – but Wales could do with causing what would be an upset in Paris this afternoon (kick-off 2.45pm).
Alun Wyn Jones & Co have a good record against Les Bleus with five wins on the spin going back to the agonising World Cup semi-final defeat in 2011, Sam Warburton and all that.
If they can stretch that to six successes then they will heap the pressure on Ireland ahead of their clash with champions England (kick-off 5pm).
The Irish currently hold fourth place in the world rankings and failure to deny Eddie Jones’ men back-to-back Grand Slams will see Wales sneak top-seed status at May’s draw for the World Cup if they have won in Paris.
Howley has been monitoring the World Rugby’s charts since temporarily taking the reins from Warren Gatland.
Before the November Tests he stressed that they could slip up just once in Cardiff this season. They failed on that front, being smashed by Australia and edged out by England, but have succeeded in the goal of being in the top eight.
That means they won’t be the third team in a potential group of death again (although they could still be the unlucky ones to get ninth-placed Argentina) and it could get even better.
If results go their way then they will avoid New Zealand, England and the Wallabies plus benefit from a better schedule thanks to top-seed status.
The table doesn’t lie but Wales would find it hard to argue they are anywhere near the level of the All Blacks, English or Aussies.
They were stodgy in the autumn and have been inconsistent in the Six Nations, as woeful in Scotland as they were excellent when emotionally-charged on home soil against England and Ireland.
If they are to upset the French then they will need wing George North to remain in the sort of form that will have stewards checking that his dad has remained in the stands rather than dancing across the turf while scrum-half Rhys Webb must provide the spark.
But it all starts up front with the Welsh tight five, so good against Ireland, in for a mammoth task against a seriously big French pack.
It will be a sapping afternoon and expect Luke Charteris and Taulupe Faletau to enter the fray early.
As befits a super and unpredictable tournament, games featuring Italy excepted, this is tough to call but Wales are due a big away win.